The 30th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act marks a significant point in American history. Since the passage of this civil rights law in 1990, it has undoubtedly increased access and opportunity for the 61 million people with some form of disability across America.
But this cannot simply serve as a milestone where we rest on the laurels of this progress. We must also look ahead to the future. In the last three decades, technology has undergone unparalleled growth. While the ADA regulates the physical world fairly well, its age means it lags eons behind when it comes to ensuring digital accessibility.
The lack of accessible websites is particularly frustrating because there are many simple fixes that exist if website designers and owners felt motivated to implement them.
The digital revolution has brought so much of daily life — shopping, finances, education, communication, health — only a swipe of a screen away. As such, it has become synonymous in many minds with expanding accessibility for those with disabilities, and there are some important examples of technology doing just that.
The everyday use of Google Home and Alexa have opened up a world to those with visual and dexterity impairments by allowing them to do things through voice command. Livestreaming of events allows those who lack mobility to access the experience virtually.
But while technology has the potential to create a more inclusive future, it has also created further barriers. With technology so embedded in our lives, digital accessibility isn’t something that would be nice to have, but is a right for everyone. Yet when accessiBe, an accessible technology company, recently tested 10,000,000 websites, the vast majority hosted in North America, for accessibility compliance, it found that 98 percent of menus and 71 percent of online forms failed.
There are a number of common shortcomings. Often, for example, the touch area of a screen is too small for those with limited hand dexterity, so it’s easy to click on the wrong link but difficult to enter passwords. This also has an impact on those with a visual impairment, such as myself, because of difficulty enlarging text or navigating audio description features.
It can be similarly difficult for those with visual impairments to access material, particularly the chat functions of video conferences that have become a mainstay of life since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Not all devices and websites allow for the size of the page to be increased, for instance.
Captioning is also an issue. The majority of online video content doesn’t include captioning, shutting out those who cannot hear as well, and many governments don’t always use interpreters for their public events, such as COVID-19 briefings.
The lack of accessible websites is particularly frustrating because there are many simple fixes that exist if website designers and owners felt motivated to implement them. Although local, state and federal government websites must meet certain accessibility requirements under federal workplace law, there are no clearly codified and enforceable ADA legal standards for website accessibility for the private sector.
Legislation requiring more digital accessibility has worked internationally. The 2019 European Accessibility Act, which covers both private and public institutions, has meant websites often have a more human-centred, inclusive design focus.
Still, until the ADA is expanded adequately, there are some grounds that do exist for bringing lawsuits in the U.S. over online accessibility — and they can be effective. Such suits are filed at the rate of one every working hour, according to 3Play Media’s 2019 report.
In one case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, Guillermo Robles, a blind man, sued the pizza giant Domino’s since he was unable to use its app and website despite having screen-reading software. His attorneys argued that the ADA requires businesses with physical locations to also make their websites and other online platforms accessible to those with disabilities, and the courts agreed.
But legal liability isn’t the only reason businesses should become digitally accessible. Not doing so risks potential brand damage, as well as missed marketing and employment opportunities.
The anniversary of the ADA is not only a chance to celebrate those with a disability, but also a chance to reflect on all the barriers still in place.
Working-age people in the U.S. with disabilities have a disposable income of $490 billion. And being accessible allows businesses to recruit and retain the best talent. How can companies benefit from the innovative ideas, tenacity and talent that people with disabilities bring if they cannot find and fill out online job applications in the first place?
The anniversary of the ADA is not only a chance to celebrate those with a disability, but also a chance to reflect on all the barriers still in place. Without updating the ADA to stay relevant as technology develops, we will never be able to unlock the full potential of those with a disability.